Battles are raging on the internet. Flames are all over these scorching hot topics. Do we need to count calories or can we eat to our heart content, as long as macros are right? Which macros are right? How much fat? Is there a limit to consuming fat bombs and putting butter sticks in our coffee? To every meek “I do everything by the rules, yet don’t lose a single pound” there is a scolding “You must be doing something wrong, because it worked for me,” cheerful “Continue doing it, it will work,” or consoling “You are getting healthier, that’s what matters.”
If you ever participated in such exchanges or observed them, you no doubt know how raw it can get. People tend to get emotionally attached to their pet theories and their way of eating, to defend it with passion, and (this part is not so good) to impose on others what works for them without acknowledging the possibility of different metabolic reactions. Let’s try and untangle this.
Fair warning before we get to the topic at hand: if reading this post you feel anger, that’s good. It means that your beliefs are being challenged. This is a very good thing because the science is far from settled on these topics. Just think of all the twists and turns of the nutritional advice by the government, by researchers, by doctors, and by authors of endless dietary books. Weren’t those often complete U-turns? Did your own view stay the same through the last, say, 30 years? Didn’t we (almost) all buy into a low-fat mantra, vitamin supplements, coffee-good – coffee-bad, healthy grains, gluten-free, and whatnot? It’s good to remain open to differing points of view. Everything below is my current points of view; I came to it by testing what worked and didn’t work for me, for many people around me, by observing exchanges and conversing with many people describing different reactions on various foods and patterns of eating. It differs from what I thought 5 years ago, and I make no promise that 5 years from now I will subscribe to exact same view. The main gist, however, I believe I get right, or very close to it.
We did touch on these topics in the post about nutritional zealotry, so if you missed it you may want to start with that. Here we are going to take one more step and formulate actual recommendation about what should work for most, if not all, people.
So, do calories matter? Didn’t we say many times before that CICO (calories in, calories out) theory is dead? Yes, they do, and yes, we did. Brief summary, so we could move on to the practical solution:
- Yes, calories matter. If you take in more than your body requires, the excess must be burned or put in storage for the rainy day – that storage is fat.
- No, not every excessive calorie goes into storage; our body has a clever way to adapt its metabolism by making us move more, by increasing our temperature, by speeding up our heart rate and breathing, etc.
- No, this elasticity is not without its limits; if you continuously stuff yourself with excessive food beyond a certain limit, you are going to exhaust your body ability to deal with the energy excess, and some of it will be put in the storage.
- Yes, cutting calories below your need will produce weight loss – for a while.
- No, cutting calories on day by day basis below your energy expenditure will not produce permanent and sustained weight loss; our body has a clever way to adapt its metabolism by making us move less, by lowering our temperature, by slowing down our heart rate and breathing, etc. It will also make us feel hungry and miserable, pushing us to eat more. This is where, even if we push through this hunger, we hit weight plateau and then bounce starts. Frustrated, we either further lower our energy intake and become even more miserable (how sustainable is that?), or give up, start eating more, gain back everything we lost and then some!
This is the moment where you raise your brow and ask: so, what are you saying, no matter what we do calories wise, there is no way to lose weight AND keep it off? No, that’s not what I am saying. The way to a permanent weight loss, however, is not in monotonous day-by-day calorie cutting. This is exactly what our body adapts to, and we need to find the way around this ability to adapt. The answer is not really complicated when we think about it in these terms.
Let’s think back to the ancestral way of eating. Was the food readily available at all times? Was it the same food all the time? Hardly; seasons changed and we had no refrigerators or transport crisscrossing the globe delivering the food to our supermarkets. Neither there were supermarkets with aisles full of crap. So, we ate what was available when it was available. Quantities of food changed from total feast to total fast, with everything in-between. Macros changed from full-on meat/protein while we ate freshly killed mammoth to full-on carbs when all we had were roots, fruits, and greens. With everything in-between, of course. And sometimes, on rare occasions, we had a feast of sweets by hitting a motherload of honey.
Notice a permanent element in the description above? Here it is: CHANGE. “There is nothing permanent except change
Let’s translate it into practical terms. As we stated above, permanent cutting calories on day by day basis, as in eating 1500 calories every day, won’t cut it. However, if in an attempt to break the monotony and mimic ancestral way of eating you introduce two non-consecutive fasting (or pseudo-fasting, by 5:2 protocol) days a week, you are very likely to start losing weight. Notice that it’s likely to work even if your overall calorie intake is higher than with every day’s cutting. This happens thanks to factors other than energy intake, namely rejigging our hormonal balance, introducing insulin-free periods and overriding our body adaptation mechanisms. In fact, up to a certain point, this technique is likely to work for the insulin-resistant folks even with overall calorie intake remaining the same on weekly basis. Eliminate between-the-meal snacks, and you increase this effect. And of course, liquidate the artificial crap from your diet and eat real food – I can’t overstate the importance of this part.
Now, a few words about macros. Do we need to eat as much fat as possible? Let’s stay sane about this. By lowering carbs, you will inevitably increase fat content, there is just no other nutrient to replace the carbs (our ability to eat protein is more limited compared to other macros). But do you need to stuff yourself with fat bombs and butter sticks in your coffee? I see folks doing that simply because they believe that absence of insulin response makes fat a punishment-free food to eat in any amounts. It’s just not true; if you over-stretch your body ability to adjust your metabolism, it won’t have to burn the internal fat storage. If you are not hungry, just don’t eat – it’s as simple as that. And if you ARE hungry, is the fat the most satiating nutrient? For many, it’s not – they can eat a lot of fat without feeling full and can overeat on it easily. It’s a protein that is the most satiating for many, if not most of us. Granted, I prefer it to be a fatty protein, not lean one, but still, it’s far from pure fat.
What about that rare honey intake? Well, you might have heard or experienced this phenomenon where breaking your low carb or ketogenic routine with occasional carb refill helps break the plateau and restart weight loss. This is the same concept of change being healthy for us. I don’t pretend to know the exact mechanics of this particular trick, and I doubt anyone knows how and why it works. It, however, fits perfectly in the idea of metabolic flexibility. Healthy* body switches from fat to carbs on the fly, being able to use either energy source depending on availability. Maybe introducing such refills we trigger some mechanisms of that flexibility and further improve our hormonal balances and appetite neuro regulators. Maybe something else is at work here. The concept of breaking the routine being healthy stays true though.
*Now, let’s make an important distinction here. You noticed that I said “healthy body,” right? All this works a bit differently for the folks with damaged metabolism. I don’t believe a diabetic should eat a jar of honey for the change sake. Neither do I believe people with sugar addiction should indulge on sweets for such change, and risk ruining their hard work by falling back into harmful habits. As with everything, let’s apply common sense to these concepts. And most importantly: test your reactions, observe how this or that approach works for you. Nothing is universal in nutrition – while general principles remain true for all or most of us, details differ and those details matter. A lot.